September 22, 2023
Sep 22, 2023
Your first steps inside Citizen Vinyl’s entryway are upon the surface of a colorful granite floor. The brass inlay outlines the counties of Western North Carolina that surround the mountain town of Asheville. It’s a reminder of the building’s past, but that history still remains part of the spirit of the new business housed inside.
This architectural beauty, designed by architect Anthony Lorde in the 1930s, originally housed Asheville’s newspapers at the time – The Asheville Citizen and The Times. The entryway floor maps out the region the paper has covered and served since 1870. It’s a throwback to the heyday of print journalism and the manufacturing facility that printed thousands of newspapers daily.
The art moderne space’s soaring 20-feet-high ceilings and 20,000 translucent glass blocks space harken back to the heart of this bustling, tourist-friendly city a century ago. While digitalization, the internet, social media and e-commerce have usurped the ink-stained newsprint in this grand old structure, the muted whoosh and mechanized orchestra of sounds coming from the interiors today are part of a 21st century time machine — proving to all, that what’s old is often new again.
Vinyl records – those shiny round albums capable of transporting you back to a place and time in a matter of minutes – are back. And back big.
“The first time I came into the space it reminded me of an old hotel lobby or train station terminal,” says Susannah Gebhardt, owner of OWL Bakery and a consultant who helped launch Session Cafe’s food program. Aromas from their bustling cafe kitchen invite you inside. On the other side of the cafe, the vinyl factory presses analogue recordings for musicians and producers, longing for the sound of pure vinyl.
Winston-Salem native Gar Ragland, a veteran music producer, started the endeavor in 2020.
While on tour with one of his record label’s musicians in 2011, Ragland discovered Echo Mountain Studio, located in an old downtown Asheville church. In his role as owner and CEO of NewSong Music, a musicians’ showcase and recording label he started in New York in 2001, he felt the familiar creative pull of Asheville he had experienced growing up in North Carolina.
“Culturally, Asheville punches well above its weight class,” he said.
By 2017, Ragland had been in the recording business long enough to see a trend – a dynamic demand for the return to vinyl records. He also witnessed first-hand as a record label producer the frustratingly long lead-times for artists to get their music produced on vinyl.
After a lengthy hunt for the perfect manufacturing location for pressing vinyl, the opportunity was apparent and the time was right. Citizen Vinyl now has two presses producing over 35,000 vinyl records a month, pressing analogue recordings for the likes of musicians such as Asheville’s own Moses Sumney, Durham’s Mandolin Orange, MF Doom, Nancy Wilson (one half of the sister duo known as the band Heart) and War on Drugs’ Dave Hartwell.
The business has more demand for its vinyl pressing services than it can handle. Recording artists and producers from Los Angeles to Nashville are knocking on the door. “We are having to turn down tens of thousands of records because we don’t have the capacity. We’ve got a long waiting list.”
In spite of the high demand, Citizen Vinyl prides itself on being a company dedicated to smaller independent artists, many of whom are getting their first record pressed. “It’s important to the ethos of the company that we make space for producing their records too,” says Ragland.
“I am committed to helping preserve Asheville’s cultural integrity,” he adds, complimenting the thriving creative economic sector in the community. “Its history as a place where creative energy and the arts have historically come together has to be recognized and protected.
“My goal is for Citizen Vinyl to leverage the history of this building and function as a high-profile cultural landmark. I hope we can become a craft collective that also functions as an educational resource for our rich cultural heritage,” he adds.
Article courtesy Elizabeth Sims. You can find more of her work here.